this a text version of my shabbat sermon from 11/29/15
I’ve learned over the years that the Friday after Thanksgiving is generally a pretty busy day for rabbis. After all, it is a family oriented weekend, people come in to town, so the day after Thanksgiving is a popular day for unveilings, sometimes baby namings, and even for weddings. Yesterday morning I had two unveilings. They happened to be in the same cemetery an hour apart, and as it was a nice day I spent the in between time wandering around and reading the tombstones. And while doing so I saw something on a tombstone that I’ve never seen before in my life, but that I suspect I will see more of in the years to come.
As you are aware, most tombstones are inscribed with three things: the name of the person, often in English and Hebrew, a listing of their immediate family relationships – in other words, they were a mother, grandmother, wife, and sister; and the last thing? Their age. And yesterday I saw a tombstone where the person’s age was 111.
Now it is rare in a cemetery to see people who lived into their late 90s, even rarer to see someone who was 100 or older. But 111 is extremely rare, to the point where it is the oldest age I can ever recall see recorded on a tombstone. And I suspect -at least for the next few years – that will probably remain a record for me. But I also suspect, in the next few years, I will see more and more tombstones that mark a person’s age at a hundred or more. And that is because of one very simple statistical fact – namely we are all living longer.
This is something we’ve all been aware of for some time, whether we know the actual statistics, or just know it from anecdotal evidence in our own lives. A couple of years ago I officiated at a graveside service where the daughter of the diseased – the daughter! – was 82. It happens – rarely, but it does happen – that couples today are married 70 plus years. It is very common that people live in to their 80s today. We are fond of saying ‘that 40 is the new 30, or 70 is the new 50.’ And the statistics we have about aging support all the anecdotal evidence. In 2010, about 13% of the US population was over 65 – right around 40 million people. In another decade or so projections are that 72 million people in the US will be 65 or older, about 20% of the total population. And the demographic slice that is growing the fastest in America is the 85 and over population.
Now it goes without saying that this is wonderful blessing for many families, and for many individuals. I really only knew two of my biological grandparents. My mother’s mother was dead before I was born, and my zadie died when I was just 11 years old. Young people today grow up knowing their grandparents well, because their grandparents are still alive when they – the grandchildren – are in their 30s, 40s, and even 50s. So people have more time to spend with their loved ones, more time to impart their wisdom to the generations of their families, more time to watch grandchildren and great grandchildren grow.
But with all of the blessings that come with longer life there are many challenges as well. Some of these are well documented. As people age they commonly need more health care, so an aging population is straining the health care system today, both in terms of resources and costs. There is also the question of housing – where will folks live when they reach a stage of their lives where they can’t live independently anymore? And some of the most painful conversations I have with families revolve around precisely that issue – at what point must you take someone’s independent living away from them, because it is not safe for them anymore to live by themselves?
But this morning I want to touch on a different challenge that I see with the longer lives we are living, this challenge harder to quantify in terms of statistics, but in my mind no less important, and that is the deep feeling of loneliness that so many of our seniors struggle with every day. This morning’s Torah portion recounts the well known story of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious attacker in the middle of the night. But you’ll remember that before the wrestling Jacob enacts an odd plan. He is traveling with hundreds of people, including his family, but he sends them all away just as night is falling, and then the Torah tell us this about Jacob: ויותר יעקב לבדו – Jacob remained alone. There was no one there to stand by his side during one of the most difficult moments of his life. There was no one he could talk to, no one to share his burdens with, no one to hold him and reassure him. No one to say I care about you and I love you.
For whatever reason, Jacob chose that fate himself, he sent everyone he knew to the other side of the river. But many of our seniors are alone by no choice of their own. Almost by definition if you live into your 90s many of the people you have most intimately shared your life with are gone. You have probably lost your spouse, your siblings, and many of your friends. If you are lucky enough to have family in town – children and grandchildren – that can help tremendously, but the truth is the children and the grandchildren have their own busy lives, and although they might visit frequently, even every day, it is common that their are hours and hours and hours every day when seniors are alone.
I will be the first to say that I do not know the answer here, I do not pretend to have a magic formula that will take away the loneliness that so many of our seniors experience. I do believe that education is an important piece of the puzzle. Families are all too often groping in the dark trying to figure out what to do and how to help their parents and grandparents. And there is information out there, and specialists as well, that can help them navigate the hard decisions and difficult conversations they face. In Baltimore Jewish Community Services has wonderful resources for seniors and their families. So that is a piece.
I think also there is an important role for synagogues to play in this puzzle, and although we work hard to stay in touch with our seniors, we need a more comprehensive system to meet the needs of members who have been affiliated with their congregations in many cases for decades. There is a lot of work to be done.
But if I don’t know exactly what the answers are, I do know that the Jewish community should be leading the way on this issue, not just locally, but nationally as well. The Torah itself, our core document, teaches this: מפני שיבה תקום והדרת פני זקן – you shall rise before the aged, and show deference to the elderly – ויראת מאליקך – in doing so you shall show reverence for God – אני ה׳- I am Adonai.
As our elderly population grows in the years ahead, may we as a community find blessings in the path that we walk on together, revering our seniors every step of the way, and together with them finding even deeper meaning in the long journey of our lives.